While most students will be bundled up inside studying this February, a select few will jump into a pool of water to raise awareness about disabilities.

The University’s Athletic Department announced a new partnership with Special Olympics Michigan on Thursday, commencing with a polar plunge at Michigan Stadium on February 23.

The mission of Special Olympics Michigan is to provide about 19,260 children and adults with disabilities with the opportunity to develop their physical fitness skills and to create a welcoming community, according to their Facebook page. Programs for athletes and their families are free and include sports, such as alpine skiing or flag football.

The University’s polar plunge — an event where participants jump into a frigid manmade or natural body of water — will be one of 28 polar plunges throughout the state during January, February and March. The purpose of these events is to raise money and awareness for the organization and the competitions that Special Olympics Michigan provide for their athletes. A pool will be placed on the football field for the event, the Athletic Department said.

The Athletic Department will participate in subsequent Special Olympics Michigan events, including a basketball tournament at Saline High School and a bowling tournament at Colonial Lanes. Thus far, six events, including the polar plunge, are scheduled between Feb. 23 and July 19.

Associate Athletic Director David Ablauf said though student athletes participate in local community service projects, like reading to students at local Ann Arbor schools, the partnership with the Special Olympics is primarily focused on engaging Athletic Department employees in community service.

“We’re really excited to be able to partner with Special Olympics and to be able to do some things to help some of these aspiring athletes,” Ablauf said. “They have some amazing events. They do some amazing things, and we’re excited to be a part of it and to offer up our time and energy to help them meet the goals that they have as an organization.”

The Athletic Department’s Office of Community and University Engagement, which handles the community service partnerships between Michigan athletes and local organizations, will now also work with the Special Olympics Michigan on the new partnership.

Kimberly Purdy, the chief marketing and development officer for Special Olympics Michigan, said the first polar plunge was organized about 15 years ago and has grown immensely in funding and participation. Purdy added that the event is a “fun and crazy” way to raise awareness to the organization.

“It’s just phenomenal,” Purdy said, adding that a Special Olympics athlete also speaks at each polar plunge to educate attendees about the organization and the importance of acceptance and tolerance.

University Athletic Director Dave Brandon said in a statement that the new partnership will integrate the values of the University Athletic Department with the values of the Special Olympics.

“Service to our community is something our team members feel passionate about, and this partnership with the Special Olympics will allow us to help aspiring athletes,” Brandon said. “We plan to make the polar plunge a ‘wow’ experience for everyone involved in taking the plunge. We look forward to teaming with the Special Olympics.”

Purdy added that Special Olympics Michigan hopes to expand the relationship with the University. She said the Big House will be an “amazing” venue for the polar plunge and there was strong interest from Athletic Department employees to volunteer year round at local competitions and training.

The Special Olympics Michigan’s long-term goals are to further integrate volunteers, perhaps certify coaches and have the polar plunge become an annual event at the Big House, Purdy said. She added that the Athletic Department will help Special Olympics athletes with disabilities feel included and united in the larger community.

Anne Rogers, the special projects manager for the Special Olympics Michigan, said she is impressed with the efforts put forth by the Athletic Department’s team members.

“I think it’s really impressive that they come together as a staff,” Rogers said. “This is exclusively for their staff, it’s really not for the student athletes … it really is staff driven,” Rogers said.

She called the collaboration a “win-win” situation for the Athletic Department and the Special Olympics Michigan.

“They’re such a great group,” Rogers said. “Our missions align — that we both focus on sports — and I just think that they will be great volunteers. And the experience with them will be rewarding as well — to spend time with our athletes. We’re very excited about it.”

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published.